ROEBUCK — There’s a famous Norman Rockwell painting — Free Speech — in which the artist depicts a man standing at his chair and earnestly voicing his opinion at a public meeting, Fellow citizens listen in interest from their surrounding seats. These were the golden years when the people knew they had a voice in a land of similar interests.
But there were no questions that came from “the floor” at a recent provincial all-candidates’ meeting in Roebuck — and it was somewhat frustrating for a political observer to watch.
This isn’t a swipe at the volunteer event organizers with the Leeds and Grenville federations of agriculture. The chosen format was by no means unusual for rural Eastern Ontario in all its politeness. And yet, something is lost when only pre-written questions, submitted in advance by those in attendance, are read aloud by moderators, to be duly answered by each of six candidates, one by one like an assembly line. It falls well short of being a debate. No follow-up questions. No rebuttal.
Part of this was no doubt a function of the quintessentially meager sound system of any rural meeting hall. (Some are notoriously scant.) There was only one microphone in Roebuck, which had to be passed down the line between candidates after each and every contender offered a reply in sequence to every single question, during their allotted small amount of time.
Maybe it’s a romantic Rockwell-esque standard, but the most important single microphone on such an occasion needs to be situated in the crowd. The floor sat silently in this case, but ideally, the audience should be the wellspring of sentiment and questions posed to those seeking the votes of the public. To deny the collective intelligence of the group an opportunity to verbally interact with the candidates with spontaneous questions is a recipe for a sterile evening at the very least. It does no one any favours to take all emotion and debate out of a political contest.
As it is, the format allows candidates to avoid questions they don’t want to answer. The power in these townhall meetings should be put back into the hands of the people or even fewer people and media are going to show up. Only about 50 people showed up to hear six candidates talk about agriculture at a recent meeting in Leeds-Grenville. (How many were invited by the candidates?) Let people ask questions from the microphone and be allowed follow-up questions, which is often the only time it gets interesting. The follow-ups are often when you learn if a candidate re- ally has some ideas or is just good at dancing. The follow-ups are where we learn if a candidate really knows his stuff.
An all-candidates’ meeting craves real debate, and that means pragmati- cally counterbalancing the “treat every candidate the same” beancounter ideal with the actual desires of the audience. Allow the public to ask the majority of questions from the floor, and grant each person posing a ques- tion the choice of which one, two or three candidates get to respond. The mainstream parties are sure to receive most of the airtime this way. The fringy candidates would still get to make open and closing statements but this rightly limits their time.
The 2022 election has come and gone, and the issues haven’t gone away. There’s always an opportunity to change things up the next time around, to strive for even greater free speech in our political discourse. Another four years seems like an eternity away, though.
Nelson Zandbergen Assistant editor Nelson Zandbergen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.